Blinken meets Israeli spy chief as Iran talks continue

Politics

Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a virtual bilateral meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top Biden administration national security aides met Thursday with the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency for talks that focused primarily on Iran, according to officials familiar with the meeting.

The two-hour meeting was the second this week in Washington involving senior officials from the two countries and underscored Israel’s unease with ongoing indirect nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States in Vienna and Iran more broadly, the officials said. Although other issues were discussed, Israel used Thursday’s meeting to “express strong concerns” about Iran, one of the officials said. The officials were not authorized to discuss the private diplomatic talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Blinken attended Thursday’s meeting along with his newly confirmed deputy, Wendy Sherman, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and two other senior officials, Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan represented Israel.

The State Department declined to comment on the meeting or even to confirm that it had happened, but said the Biden administration is committed to coordination and transparency with Israel in its nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

On Tuesday, Sullivan, McGurk, Chollet and U.S. special envoy for Iran Rob Malley met with Erdan and Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss Iran and other regional matters. Malley departed Washington for Vienna shortly after those talks.

A White House readout of that meeting said the U.S. had “updated Israel on the talks in Vienna and emphasized strong U.S. interest in consulting closely with Israel on the nuclear issue going forward.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that the Vienna consultations had made some progress, but the sides “are not on the cusp of any breakthrough.”

The Biden administration has said it is willing to lift certain sanctions on Iran if Iran returns to compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Under the accord, Iran got billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for curbing its nuclear program. Much of that relief evaporated when Trump pulled out of the deal and re-imposed tough new sanctions on Iran.

A potential U.S. return to the deal along with the sanctions relief it would entail has unsettled both Israel and its Arab neighbors, which fear increasing Iranian assertiveness in the region. Price said an inter-agency team of senior officials would travel to Gulf Arab countries in the coming days to address those concerns. He declined to offer details.

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